Although your several reports in last week’s edition commendably captured the atmosphere and horrors that surrounded the Crown Heights pogrom of August 1991, one misstatement and an accompanying omission should be rectified. As the attorneys who were called upon to represent the Lubavitch driver of the car that tragically — and accidentally — struck little Gavin Cato, my former law partner, Barry Slotnick, and I certainly had front-row seats to this appalling episode in the history of race relations in this city.
First of all, contrary to one of your reports, it was not the Lubavitcher rebbe’s car that struck the child. Rather, it was a vehicle traveling behind him as part of the police-led entourage that was returning from the rebbe’s visit to his wife’s grave. Second, unnoted in your reports was the fact that there were two unsung profiles in courage to this event. I speak of Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, and his former Assistant District Attorney Star Jones (yes, that Star Jones, later a panelist on ABC’s “The View”), who had been assigned to investigate the incident and present evidence to the grand jury.
Having engaged an accident reconstruction expert, we offered proof to the prosecutors that the automobile that tragically struck the Cato child had swerved to avoid another vehicle that was unexpectedly about to cross the rebbe’s motorcade. We also demonstrated through the testimony of our client (who, we proved, had not been speeding and who had been abiding by New York state laws governing police-led processions) that his immediate reaction was to jump out and attempt to extricate the pinned-down youth from under his vehicle. Yet, with the assistance of his companions, he had no choice but to escape the quickly growing mob, which was more interested in pouncing upon him than helping save the child.
The grand jury, though composed of a cross-section of Brooklyn’s population, including many African Americans, ultimately declined to indict our client. Its decision, though precisely what the evidence and controlling legal principles required, was undoubtedly not the most politically expedient for the prosecutors, given the prevailing atmosphere, and they surely could have steered it in another direction.
Indeed, the bringing of homicide charges against our client would certainly have stood this Irish district attorney and his African-American assistant in far better graces with the black residents in Crown Heights. For this was a community, fired up by the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton (who, before his resurrection, had never failed to fan the flames of racial hatred in this town), that had been demanding a Jewish scalp — no doubt as justification for its own horrific behavior, which, in addition to its terrifying rampages through Jewish neighborhoods, included the cold-blooded killing of Yankel Rosenbaum for no other reason than his having been a Jew.
District Attorney Hynes and ADA Jones, however, as they repeatedly assured us, were only interested in one thing — the pursuit of justice. In the end, rather than guiding the grand jury to vote with the political winds, they instructed the members of that body to follow the law, with whatever political consequences would ensue. To my mind, their dispassionate courage should never be forgotten.
The writer is a criminal defense attorney in New York.